Author's note: If you haven't already done so, please read part 1 - 4 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!
Politics in Performance
Michelle Baldwin (2004) aptly defines burlesque as “the divine mixture of the sexy and the satirical” (p. 38.) One of the things I wanted to find out in my interviews was whether my assumptions were correct:
Were the people performing burlesque the feminist intellectuals I had imagined them to be, and did gender and social politics play an important role in their performances?
I found that yes, in fact this was often the case, but not always. Many in the burlesque community, such as UnAmerika's Sweetheart Karin Webb, feel it is imperative that burlesque performance make a statement, staying true to the old tradition of burlesque as social commentary even in its modern reincarnation. Fargo (2008) points out that, “In our sex-saturated modern society, public display of the body can no longer be counted as inherently transgressive, so performers have to seek more extreme means in their quest to question mainstream social norms and gender roles." Honey Suckle Duvet (2009) explained:
For me doing a dance in front of people who don’t look anything like me or… people who have not necessarily historically appreciated me… that’s making a statement. And I think that a woman who’s coming from a place of needing to overcome things or having a back-story that’s... ingrained in really deep issues when she gets up there and she’s doing something that’s 'just cutesy...' for her that’s a statement and there’s power in that.”
Still many others are not troubled by whether or not there is a message to burlesque and are content with what Jacki Willson (2008) calls “politically naïve” performance (p. 2).
During the second wave of feminism, “the personal became political” (Siegel, 2007, p.2). This concept meant that the private issues with which women struggled actually tied in to the larger social structure in which they lived.
Today, “for many women in their twenties and thirties, ‘politics’ refers to elections or politicians – not necessarily the underlying currents that shape their personal lives… Individualism seems to have trumped collective action – not just among women, but throughout American culture more generally throughout the past thirty years” (Siegel, 2007, p. 5). During the seventies there was backlash against protestors and people began to lose faith in political structures. They ‘went internal,’ seeking out new age religions, meditation and fitness, and self-help (Siegel, 2007, p. 27) (Baumgardner and Richards, p. 62).
Three of the five burlesque performers I interviewed, when asked if their personal politics played a role in their performances, did not connect this question with ‘feminism’ until further prompted. Only two had ever heard of pro-sex or sex-positive feminism. One, Honey Suckle Duvet (2009), who runs workshops entitled “Burlesque for Better Body Image,” surprised me by answering that she did not consider herself a feminist, stating, “I don’t want to be a part of any group... I don’t want a label because there’s a weight to that, and there’s an expectation with that.”
When pressed to elaborate on why many modern women might choose not to self-identify a feminists, she stated,
I think that something that turns people off from feminism and something that I’ve found, not with feminism on paper but the way that I’ve seen it in my life is a pressure for me to redefine myself and not accept or respect things that I’ve grown up with as a part of my culture that I choose to still have. And there’s a pressure for me to… be offended more than I feel I am, and to fit a mold because the old mold was bad so the answer is to find a new one (Duvet, 2009).
As Siegel (2007) points out, there has never been a time when all feminists universally agreed on everything, including labels. However the one point that has been particularly sticky is the topic of sexuality.
Jill Gibson, a comedic burlesque performer and female-to-male drag actor who does not perform striptease, spoke of the significance of her character, burlesque emcee “Mary Dolan,” an eighty-six-year-old woman whose character is loosely based on Gibson’s late grandmother, who had been a vaudeville performer. Gibson (2009) pointed out that she can say things to an audience through Mary Dolan that Jill Gibson could never say, that people responded better to Dolan’s maternal presence than they would a “raging dyke waving a rainbow flag.”
When asked what role burlesque is currently fulfilling in American society, Gibson (2009) responded,
“I hope its role will be to inject some sex into modern culture, because right now our culture is afraid of sex.”
While anti-pornography feminism has sought to protect women from sexual abuse, it has served to reinforce the lack of openness about women’s sexuality. Jill Nagle (1997) writes that it is “time to stop reproducing the whore stigma common to the larger culture. These practices dilute much of feminism’s radical potential” (p. 2).
As long as women continue to be fearful of expressing their sexuality, the few who do will continue to appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, exposing them to stigma and abuse. Our culture could use more sexuality.
The media and popular culture have an incredible influence over American culture, but what we need is more authentic expression of women’s sexuality, not a continued dependence on the stereotypical, voiceless images of women we have traditionally been served.
Our feminist foremothers might have taught us to “downplay [our] sexuality in order to be taken seriously” (Goldwyn, 2006, p. xiv). However, many intelligent, independent women choose to do just the opposite. As Maria Elena Buszek points out in her book, Pin up Grrrls (2006)“although feminist thinkers have consistently drawn upon women’s sexuality as a site of oppression, so too have they posited the nurturance of women’s sexual freedom and pleasure as an antidote to the same” (p. 4). Burlesque serves as a platform for “opening up a dialogue between the private and public sphere,” honoring the feminist tradition of seeing the personal as political (Willson, 2008, p. 161).
A burlesque dancer is able to breathe life into the stereotypical sex-object image, to animate her and allow her to be seen as a whole sexual being.
The intelligent burlesque sex symbol asserts that, contrary to what Dworkin says, sex does not erode us, we are self-posessed, “not broken, and our desires aren’t simply booby traps set by the patriarchy” (Baumgardner and Richards, 2000, p. 137).
Perhaps the most famous queen of the old burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, marketed herself as the “literary stripper” or “striptease intellectual,” and engaged in witty repartee and intellectual commentary as she disrobed (Fargo, 2008). During the last two decades of old burlesque (1945–1966), there emerged a tradition called “narrative striptease” (Urish, 2004). Narrative striptease does not necessarily refer to performances like those of Gypsy Rose Lee using spoken word, rather it refers to dancers finding their ‘voice’ by telling a story with the performance.
With stages often set like plays, narrative striptease was striptease with a plot worked in – the performer would undress because she was getting ready for a date, because a mouse had run up her leg, and so forth. The narratives were often about heterosexual relationships and used a surrogate male to assert the performer’s authority over the male, and by extension, her audience. Sometimes the male figure was a puppet, sometimes an empty chair, or an imagined person on the other end of a telephone. As these women performed, they “became paradoxical entities, ‘active objects’ in the process of undercutting their objectification as that very objectification was performed. They may have been forced to play the patriarchal game, but they were finding ways to subvert the game as it was played” (Urish, 2004, p. 160). Emily Layne Fargo (2008) talks about the subversive power of the burlesque performer:
A scantily-clad, or even unclad, female was socially acceptable on a public stage so long as she remained still, functioning as a static piece of art to be contemplated. But the moment she began to exercise physical mobility and vocal subjectivity in addition to her physical charms (as burlesque performers did), she became a serious threat that had to be stopped and silenced. The female burlesque performer thus brought together two controversial components – an eroticized body and an outspoken voice.
The tradition of narrative striptease is quite popular in today’s burlesque as well, and it is one of the elements that truly distinguishes burlesque from strip club performance.
Please stay tuned to this blog for the conclusion of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!
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